The Washington Post omitted key details from a piece criticizing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s charter of a $12,000 private flight after giving a speech to a hockey team coached by a former campaign donor.
The news comes as Health Secretary Tom Price promised to partially pay taxpayers for chartering $400,000 worth of private flights. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has also come under fire for chartering private flights.
WaPo was quick to point out that the private plane was owned by oil and gas executives and chartered though an independent company, Choice Aviation LLC, at a cost of $12,375 to taxpayers. The flight was paid for out of the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) budget.
But WaPo writers didn’t mention that Choice Aviation has been contracting with the DOI since 2014, according to E&E News. The company is contracted to transport officials when needed, and also assists with firefighting and surveying federal lands.
Career officials selected Choice Aviation to get Zinke to scheduled events during his trip in late June, and department ethics officials and attorneys approved travel plans.
Reporters Drew Harwell and Lisa Rein also said that Zinke could have flown commercial for $300, though what they don’t say is Zinke would have had to miss his scheduled event in Las Vegas to make any of those flights.
Zinke took the late night private jet flight to Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Mont. after addressing the Golden Knights hockey team, which is owned by former campaign donor Bill Foley. It was part of a larger official trip to the region, according to Zinke’s official schedule.
The DOI said the private flight was chartered because no commercial flights were available after the Las Vegas event ended. Zinke’s staff needed to find a commercial flight that left after 8 p.m. and got the secretary to Montana before 8:30 a.m.
Zinke had a meeting and signing ceremony the following morning in Whitefish before speaking at the Western Governors Association annual meeting. Zinke was later scheduled to go to Glacier National Park and also do an interview with GQ, according to his schedule.
Upon investigation, The Daily Caller News Foundation could not find a Monday night flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell that left after 8 p.m. The latest one was a Delta flight leaving at 7 p.m. This matches up with DOI officials’ claim that they also couldn’t find any flights matching their needs.
Despite this, WaPo said this flight illustrated how Zinke “has mixed political gatherings and personal destinations with his taxpayer-funded work” at the DOI because of the speech to a political donor’s hockey team. The article goes on to quote Aaron Weiss, a spokesman with the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental group that opposes many of the Trump administration’s policy proposals.
“There was no legitimate reason for the secretary to be there in the first place,” Weiss said, regarding Zinke’s Nevada trip.
However, it doesn’t appear as though WaPo reached out to the DOI’s ethics office; the article only quoted DOI spokeswoman Heather Swift claiming that Zinke’s trip was approved by ethics officials.
“All travel is pre-approved by the ethics office before booking, and the charter flights went through an additional level of due diligence,” Swift told TheDCNF.
Zinke’s travel arrangements are approved by DOI career officials at the Departmental Ethics Office Division of General Law to make sure the secretary is in compliance with federal ethics laws.
“Consistent with this process, the trip was reviewed and approved in advance by both the Departmental Ethics Office and the Division of General Law. In short, the trip — including the Secretary’s address to the hockey developmental squad — was completely compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” ethics office director Melinda Loftin and deputy solicitor Edward Keable said in a joint statement.
“Taxpayers absolutely have a right to know how much official government travel costs. It’s common sense,” Swift told TheDCNF. “At the Department we make those documents available to the public.”
“Standard operating procedure is that the Secretary and staff fly on a commercial, government, coach fare whenever possible,” Swift said.
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